An Artist in the Making. Yehuda Leib ben Eliyya Ha-Cohen’s Haggadah, Copenhagen, 1769
Ulf G. Haxen: An Artist in the Making – Yehuda Leib ben Eliyya Ha-Cohen’s Haggadah, Copenhagen, 1769
‘Eclecticism’ as an artistic term refers to an approach rather than a style, and is generally used to describe the combination of different elements from various art-historical periods – or pejoratively to imply a lack of originality. Proponents of eclecticism argue more favourably, however, with reference to the 16th century Carracci family and their Bolognese followers, that the demands of modernity (i.e. the new Baroque style) could be met by skilful adaptation of art features from various styles of the past.
The essay concerns the eighteenth century scribe and miniaturist Yehuda Leib ben Eliyah Ha-Cohen’s illustrated Haggadah liturgy of the second book of the, Old Testament Exodus, which represents a shift of paradigm away from the traditional Bohemia-Moravian school of Jewish book-painting towards a new approach. Our artist experiments freely, and to a certain extent successfully, with a range of different styles, motifs, themes, and iconographical traits, such as conversation pieces.
Yehuda Leib Ha-Cohen may have abandoned his home-town, the illustrious rabbinic center Lissa/Leszno in Poland, after a fire devastated its Jewish quarter in 1767. He migrated to Denmark and lived and worked in Copenhagen for at least ten years, as indicated by two of his extant works, dated Copenhagen 1769 and 1779 respectively. He was thus a contemporary of another Danish Jewish master of the Bohemia – Moravian school, Uri Feibush ben Yitshak Segal, whose iconic miniature work The Copenhagen Haggadah (1739) is well-known by art historians in the field.
Yehuda Leib Ha-Cohen drew some of his Haggadic themes from two main sources, the Icones Biblicae by Mathäus Merian and the Amsterdam Haggadot 1695 and 1712 (e.g. Pit’om and Ramses, The Meal Before the Flight). He never imitates his models, however. He adapts the standard motifs according to his own stylistic perception of symmetry and perspective, furnishing the illustrations with a muted gouache colouring.
Several of his Haggadic themes are executed with inventiveness, pictorial imagination, and a subtle sense of humour, such as The Seder Table, The Four Sons, The Finding of the Infant Moses, Solomon’s Temple, and Belshazzars Feast.
Yehuda Leib’s enigmatic reference to the ‘the masons’ (Hebrew הבנאים ) in the manuscript’s colophon has until now hardly been satisfactorily interpreted. Incidentally, however, another Hebrew prayer-book written and decorated by Mayer Schmalkalden in Mainz in 1745, recently acquired by Library of Congress, bears the same phrase (fi ‘inyan ha-bana’im = according to the code of the Masons). Dr. Ann Brener, a Hebrew specialist at the Oriental Department of Library of Congress, suggests in an unpublished essay, that the reference may be an allusion to ‘the Talmudic scholars who engage in building up the world of civilization’, (The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 114a). However that may be, Yehuda Leib Ha-Cohen’s miniatures constitute a veritable change of paradigm as far as eighteenth-century Hebrew book illustration is concerned.